7 questions for singer-songwriter Jackson Browne
"Heaven only knows whether God is planning to have a rock band on hand for Judgment Day, but if so, Jackson Browne should be given consideration for the gig."
Thus spoke the Milwaukee Sentinel's review following Browne's appearance at Uihlein Hall in April 1975. Luckily, the kind of praise that might have gone straight to another performer's head didn't find a home in Jackson Browne's. Exactly 40 years later, with a spate of albums and countless live performance under his belt, he's still the thoughtful, soft-spoken guy who penned "Doctor My Eyes," "Rock Me on the Water" and "These Days."
Now 67, while the rest of us battle middle age, he's somehow managed to retain that lanky frame and a full head of hair. "I'm just lucky," he said. "It's good genes, which I think come from my Norwegian family." Browne said he took after his grand uncle, who, despite advanced age, is remarkably fit and active.
"He even goes mountain climbing," he added.
Browne will appear on Saturday, Nov. 14 at the Riverside beginning at 8 p.m. In a recent interview, he shared some thoughts on his musical influences, his collaborations with guitarist David Lindley and his role in mythologizing an Arizona town in our collective consciousness.
OnMilwaukee: Can you talk a little about the 1970s California music scene and your part in it?
Jackson Browne: That was a time when musicians who liked folk music were gravitating to Los Angeles because of the clubs. Places like the Golden Bear, Mon Ami, they offered the opportunity to perform as well as hear music that wasn't being played elsewhere. L.A. was a gathering place for aspiring songwriters like Don Henley, J.D. Souther, the musicians in groups like The Byrds. It was a crucible-like environment.
I cultivated a friendship with J.D. Souther, and he helped me with my songwriting. I brought Warren Zevon to some peoples' attention because he was doing some really amazing things with his music. But there's no way I can take any credit for what came out of there. It was a bunch of writers and performers that just happened to be in L.A. at that time. And it wasn't just L.A. There were other places round the country generating great musicians, like Gainesville, for instance. Tom Petty and Mike Campbell from the Heartbreakers came out of there, as did Bernie Leadon and Don Felder from the Eagles.
OnMilwaukee: Who were some influential people for you?
Browne: Oh, so many. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, but also Hank Williams, Doc Watson. I loved Dave Van Ronk. And Mississippi John Hurt. "A Song for Adam" is in his style. Folk music, jug bands too. And rock and roll radio. The Top 10 stations. They'd play The Doors and then a crossover song like "Oh, Happy Day," by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. You'd hear that and go, "Hey, that's gospel!"
OnMilwaukee: Over the span of your career, you've changed the way you perform your songs. Is it fair to say Jackson Browne is still a work-in-progress?
Browne: I don't think I'd say that. The songs I still play are the ones that have stood the test of time. They carry a certain charge whether they're played with the full band or with maybe another guitar and a keyboard. When I was much younger, I opened for band at hockey arenas with just an acoustic guitar. That just didn't work. What continues to interest me is playing the songs that good in different ways. The studio version that appears on the album may be the definitive version, but there are other ways to play them that work, as long as they're played emotionally.
OnMilwaukee: Define "stand the test of time."
Browne: Not all my songs are deep or meaningful. Some of them I wrote when I was 15 or 16, and they're naïve, or callow.
OnMilwaukee: Some of your songs have a political theme. Is there a risk to you as an artist with that?
Browne: I don't think there's a risk because the songs with a political or social subject are my own journey to exploring the world. I don't see much difference in a song about love or a relationship and one about a social injustice. Both convey a need or desire to understand.
Where you could go wrong with either one is if you become too positive about what you're saying. Most of my songs ask questions, or they have an, "I know about this but I don't know about that" thing going on, like "Standing in the Breach." State your doubts, and you'll discover what you're sure of. That's what draws people into a song.
OnMilwaukee: Could the Jackson Browne "sound" have been created without David Lindley?
Browne: No, I don't think it could. I wrote the songs without David there, but the sound of his fiddle, his slide guitar, that's a big part of me. It brings the charge to those songs. He's an emotional, spontaneous player. The solo on "Late for the Sky?" David just played that. All of my efforts have been about joining up with other musicians. I'm not a soloist, but I have a sound in my head, and I know it when I hear it. Collaborating with someone like David helps me eliminate everything until I find what I'm looking for.
OnMilwaukee: "Take It Easy" put Winslow, Arizona on the map for a lot of people. Does that surprise you at all?
Browne: Well, the line in that song, which I wrote with Don Henley, does mention Winslow, but that city was already a big part of the southwestern leg of Route 66. A lot of people pass through there, and that included me in those days when I was on the way to do a show.
In 1970, I was driving a '53 Willys wagon, and it broke down in Flagstaff. I couldn't afford to pay the garage to rebuild the generator, and I was lucky to meet a guy at the auto parts store who taught me how to do it across the counter so I could keep driving. I think "Take It Easy" was half-written by that time, and it already contained the iconic imagery of the girl, the Lord and the flatbed Ford. It's all about redemption. What I recall was standing on that corner in Winslow and looking at a very tall, thin Navajo man.
OnMilwaukee: They put a statue of you on that corner.
Browne: That's not me! Everyone thinks it is, though. Besides, it was the Eagles that made the song a hit, so it was more than just me involved in the whole thing. What I'm saying is you don't want to separate the casserole here. (laughs)
OnMilwaukee: What would you be doing if you hadn't found success as a musician?
Browne: I don't know. I've never done anything else. Maybe I'd have learned to write prose. I can barely write a postcard. I like photography, so I may have pursued that. Or journalism, that's something I might have gone to school for.
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